Thursday, December 17, 2009

Fundamental practices and institutions of Islam

Fundamental practices and institutions of Islam

The Five Pillars

During the earliest decades after the death of the Prophet, certain basic features of the religio-social organization of Islam were singled out to serve as anchoring points of the community's life and formulated as the "Pillars of Islam." To these five, the Khawarij sect added a sixth pillar, the jihad, which, however, was not accepted by the general community.

The shahadah, or profession of faith

The first pillar is the profession of faith: "There is no god but God; Muhammad is the prophet of God," upon which depends the membership in the community. The profession of faith must be recited at least once in one's lifetime, aloud, correctly, and purposively, with an understanding of its meaning and with an assent from the heart. From this fundamental belief are derived beliefs in (1) angels (particularly Gabriel, the Angel of Revelation), (2) the revealed Books (the Qur'an and the sacred books of Judeo-Christian revelation described in the Qur'an), (3) a series of prophets (among whom figures of the Judeo-Christian tradition are particularly eminent--although it is believed that God has sent messengers to every nation), and (4) the Last Day (Day of Judgment).


The second pillar consists of five daily congregational prayers. These prayers may be offered individually if one is unable to go to the mosque. The first prayer is performed before sunrise, the second just after noon, the third in the later afternoon, the fourth immediately after sunset, and the fifth before retiring to bed.

Before a prayer, ablutions, including the washing of hands, face, and feet, are performed. The muezzin (one who gives the call for prayer) chants aloud from a raised place (such as a tower) in the mosque. When prayer starts, the imam, or leader (of the prayer), stands in the front facing in the direction of Mecca, and the congregation stands behind him in rows, following him in various postures. Each prayer consists of two to four genuflection units (rak'ah); each unit consists of a standing posture (during which verses from the Qur'an are recited--in certain prayers aloud, in others silently), as well as a genuflection and two prostrations. At every change in posture, "God is great" is recited. Tradition has fixed the materials to be recited in each posture.

Special congregational prayers are offered on Friday instead of the prayer just after noon. The Friday service consists of a sermon (khutbah), part of which consists of preaching in the local language and part of recitation of certain formulas in Arabic. In the sermon, the preacher usually recites a verse of the Qur'an and builds his address on it, which can be of a moral, social, or political content. Friday sermons have usually considerable impact on public opinion regarding sociopolitical questions.

Although not ordained as an obligatory duty, nocturnal prayers (called tahajjud) are encouraged, particularly during the latter half of the night. During the month of Ramadan (see below Fasting), lengthy prayers are offered congregationally before retiring and are called tarawih.

In strict doctrine, the five daily prayers cannot be waived even for the sick, who may pray in bed and, if necessary, lying down. When on a journey, the two afternoon prayers may be combined into one; the sunset and late evening prayers may be combined as well. In practice, however, much laxity has occurred, particularly in modern times, although Friday prayers are still well attended.

The Zakat

The third pillar is the obligatory tax called zakat ("purification," indicating that such a payment makes the rest of one's wealth religiously and legally pure). This is the only permanent tax levied by the Qur'an and is payable annually on food grains, cattle, and cash after one year's possession. The amount varies for different categories. Thus, on grains and fruits it is 10 percent if land is watered by rain, 5 percent if land is watered artificially.

On cash and precious metals it is 21/2 percent. Zakat is collectable by the state and is to be used primarily for the poor, but the Qur'an mentions other purposes: ransoming Muslim war captives, redeeming chronic debts, paying tax collectors' fees, jihad (and by extension, according to Qur'an commentators, education and health), and creating facilities for travellers.

After the breakup of Muslim religio-political power, payment of zakat has become a matter of voluntary charity dependent on individual conscience. Some Muslim countries are seeking to reintroduce it, and in several Middle Eastern countries zakat is officially collected, but on a voluntary basis.


Fasting during the month of Ramadan (ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar), laid down in the Qur'an (2:183-185), is the fourth pillar of the faith. Fasting begins at daybreak and ends at sunset, and during the day eating, drinking, and smoking are forbidden. The Qur'an (2:185) states that it was in the month of Ramadan that the Qur'an was revealed. Another verse of the Qur'an (97:1) states that it was revealed "on the night of determination," which Muslims generally observe on the night of 26-27 Ramadan. For a person who is sick or on a journey, fasting may be postponed until "another equal number of days." The elderly and the incurably sick are exempted through the daily feeding of one poor person.

The Hajj

The fifth pillar is the annual pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca prescribed for every Muslim once in a lifetime--"provided one can afford it" and provided a person has enough provisions to leave for his family in his absence.

A special service is held in the Sacred Mosque on the 7th of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah (last in the Muslim year). Pilgrimage activities begin by the 8th and conclude on the 12th or 13th. All worshippers enter the state of ihram; they wear two seamless garments and avoid sexual intercourse, the cutting of hair and nails, and certain other activities. Pilgrims from outside Mecca assume ihram at specified points en route to the city.

The principal activities consist of walking seven times around the Ka'bah, a shrine within the mosque; the kissing and touching of the Black Stone (Hajar al-Aswad); and the ascent of and running between Mt. Safa and Mt. Marwah (which are now, however, mere elevations) seven times. At the second stage of the ritual, the pilgrim proceeds from Mecca to Mina, a few miles away; from there he goes to 'Arafat, where it is essential to hear a sermon and to spend one afternoon. The last rites consist of spending the night at Muzdalifah (between 'Arafat and Mina) and offering sacrifice on the last day of ihram, which is the 'id ("festival") of sacrifice.

Many countries have imposed restrictions on the number of outgoing pilgrims because of foreign-exchange difficulties. Because of the improvement of communications, however, the total number of visitors has greatly increased in recent years. By the early 1990s the number of visitors was estimated to be about 2,000,000, approximately half of them from non-Arab countries. All Muslim countries send official delegations on the occasion, which is being increasingly used for religio-political congresses. At other times in the year, it is considered meritorious to perform the lesser pilgrimage ('umrah), which is not, however, a substitute for the hajj pilgrimage.

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